Review: Operation Popcorn (Grabias, 2015) – CAAMFest 2016 Preview


If you don’t know much about the Hmong living in the U.S., Operation Popcorn will be an eye-opening documentary. If you do (or are Hmong yourself), you might be intrigued at the behind-the-scenes look at a scandal you may already have heard of.

David Grabias, a veteran filmmaker of primarily TV documentaries, turns his eye on an infamous case, The United States v. Harrison Jack et. al. Allegations that the defendants had violated the Neutrality Act emerged from an extended sting operation involving several federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. As a result, General Vang Pao–one of the greatest and last Hmong political, military, and humanitarian leaders and an ally of the U.S. during its Secret War in Laos–was accused of terrorism.

Grabias’s principal entrypoint into the incident is through a young Hmong-American businessman, Locha Thao (the defendant who bears the brunt of the blame in Hmong public opinion), but the filmmaker also interweaves interviews with a Hmong historian and several young friends and family members of Thao and the Hmong clan leaders. The resulting tale is one of head-smacking naïveté and foolishness overlaying a background of historic and ongoing tragedy. It would almost be funny, if it weren’t true.

Riveting clips from wiretapped calls and from the federal agent’s undercover footage add a certain suspense to the film–suspense that sometimes comes at the expense of the viewers’ comprehension. The first half hour of the documentary is unnecessarily muddled as key information is withheld in order to build a sense of mystery. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve “ruined” that aspect for you by saying as much as I have, but hopefully you will agree that the film’s spirit and key messages survive the indiscretion.

While Grabias and his team put Locha Thao in the hot seat, they do so not without a fair dose of compassion. The best portraits provide the dark as well as the light, and Thao’s already complex public image is further complicated by his self-image, which is a messy blend of sincerity and unapologetic bluster. The viewer may crave more voices–what, for instance, do Locha’s parents think? his wife? the clan leaders themselves?–but ultimately the film is an exploration of Locha’s personal quest for redemption. (It is also a quiet indictment of the U.S. government and its so-called “war on terrorism.” The film, along with these recent articles in the New Yorker, demonstrate the government’s troubling pattern of wasting resources targeting the harmless).

Don’t miss the chance to watch Operation Popcorn at CAAMFest this Sunday, right in the backyard of where it all happened. Director David Grabias, who is attending the screening, will field questions afterward.